It wouldn't be too much of an overstatement to say local independent music label Harbour Records is a legend in Hong Kong. Here's some evidence to back that up: one of its founders belonged to an influential underground band in the 1990s, it helped launch the city's most successful indie outfit, and the label is preparing to celebrate its 10th anniversary. The main acts on Harbour's roster include My Little Airport, False Alarm and 22Cats.
While the label's expertise covers music production, design, filmmaking and promotion, it operates more like a commune. Everyone is treated as an equal and everybody pitches in when albums are released or live shows are being organised.
After more than 20 releases and countless shows over the past decade, Harbour has achieved something quite unique in Hong Kong. Kwan King-chung, one of its founders and a former member of indie pop band AMK, says the main lesson he has learned from the experience is not to treat making music as running a business.
He describes the spirit of Harbour Records as a group of friends "playing while working, and working while playing". He compares the experience to hiking, an activity that brings the entire label together every year.
"The longer you go, the more you realise what you can achieve and the deeper you know each other," he says. "And we don't forget why we started the label in the first place."
While the label's first release was All the Good People Will Shine from 22Cats, the defining moment at Harbour Records came with the release of twee pop duo My Little Airport's debut album, The OK Thing to do on a Sunday Afternoon is to Toddle in the Zoo, in the summer of 2004.
The witty lyrics quickly caught the attention of fans across Hong Kong, and the title track made it into the local top 10 charts. The duo won recognition outside Hong Kong, being named the world's "twee-est band" by Allmusic.com in 2007. They were also covered by Scottish indie pop outfit BMX Bandits. "If this album had not happened, I do not think Harbour Records would have survived this long," says Chan Lam-por, the front man for 22Cats.
Recent releases include albums by Summer Romance, Rachel Believes in Me, The Lee's and Audrey Lily. When asked about the secret of the label's success, Chan says operating as a commune makes survival easier.
The label is preparing for a 10th anniversary gig on May 3 at Hidden Agenda. The line-up includes a rare reunion of False Alarm, a performance by the label's breakout band My Little Airport, and Teenage Riot, an all-star collaboration of a selection of bands and their musical mates.
It's not hard to imagine that Harbour Records could enjoy another decade of success. Before the end of the year, the label is set to release the second album by one-man-band Relaxpose, and the debut album from New York-based acoustic singer-songwriter Reonda. The artist came across My Little Airport's music in the US and later became friends with Nicole Au, the band's singer. She will play the anniversary show on May 3.
Reonda says Harbour Records is one of the few labels that is having a positive impact on the city's music industry. "Hong Kong is such an intense place, people sometimes forget to slow down and look for things that aren't easy and mainstream," she says.
"The media is just made to feed corporations' wallets, and people forget that some art is made sincerely and honestly," she says.
Harbour Records' 10th Anniversary Party, May 3, 7.30pm, Hidden Agenda, 2A, Wing Fu Industrial Bldg, 15-17 Tai Yip St, Kwun Tong, HK$100 (advance), HK$130 (door). Inquiries: 9559 7916